Having worked in restaurants and had a little travel experience to draw from, I have had the privilege of tasting some phenomenal wines from around the world and partaking in fun and fascinating discussions with sommeliers, connoisseurs and humble wine-drinkers- who have helped me further my appreciation. Wine is more than just something you drink; it is a complex sensory experience and the more you know about it, the more enjoyable your experience, plus, even if you’re missing all your faculties, you can still get a good buzz.
Wine can mean different things to different people and the pure pleasures of drinking wine are certainly not limited to its taste. In my experience, the best wines, regardless of how cheap or ordinary they were, have always tasted better in great company. Impressions of a wine are easily tinted by the context you’re in. You can be sipping on a rare Millésimé- but if you’re on an awkward date, where conversation is like pulling teeth, the wine is just as good as wasted. (Unless of course you can find a way of sneaking out with it through the back door and enjoying it by yourself.)
With wines ranging anywhere from $8 to $150,000 (the price of a bottle of Grand Cru First Growth, Château Pétrus, 1961) wine can certainly be intimidating. With its own history and language, sometimes all the components can begin to feel overwhelming, so much, you have no idea where to begin. But, the first step is easy: be open. One of wine’s wonderful characteristics is that it reminds everyone of something. A moment, a taste, a smell, whether it’s cherries, currant, blackberries, an airport, or your grandfather’s old cigar, wine embodies a panoply of aromas that evoke some type of memory.
I have tried to compile some of the very basic things you should know about wine, to hopefully enhance your appreciation, and most of all, help you avoid looking like a jackass when attempting to look like you know what you’re talking about.
Old World Wines: These include wines from France, Italy, Germany, Portugal, and Spain. Their origins date back to the Roman Empire and beyond. One of the reasons Old World wines are considered so invaluable is that growers from over 2000 years ago were able to determine which areas produced the finest quality grapes and even after the collapse of the Roman Empire, the grapes that managed to survive became the grapes which are still grown to this day.
New World Wines: These include wines from Australia, the United States, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. Over the past 10 to 15 years the wine industry has undergone a significant shift, from Old World to New World wines. These wines are well-priced and ready to drink without having to be aged, which has a lot to do with why drinking wine has become so popular among the masses. This has been the cause of much controversy for the Old “Worlders”, whose methods and traditions have been developed over thousands of years, now having to compete with the new guy who comes in and practically takes over the industry.
Body: The body of a wine refers to the weight of the wine in your mouth—full-bodied, thin, and lean.
Tannins: You know that mouth-drying feeling you get in your jowls when you take a sip of wine, well that’s what people are referring to when they talk of tannins. Red wines contain more tannins than whites. A wine that has high tannins can be described as “harsh” or “stemmy”.
Balance: This refers to the balance of sweetness, acids and tannins in the wine. If there is too much of one component it can completely throw off the balance, wherefore you can whip out the term “unbalanced”. Wines that are very acidic will have little after taste and finish in your mouth, so expressions such as “short”, “sharp” or “dried out” can also be used to describe this fleeting taste.
Legs: A wine’s legs help you to determine the body of the wine. Simply by doing the fancy-shmancy glass twirl and twist, you can watch the wine drip from the top, down just like creepy long legs. The slower the falling legs, the more full-bodied the wine; the quicker the falling legs, the lighter the wine.
A Short List of Essential Red Grapes
Cabernet Sauvignon: Strong, bold, heavy, deeply concentrated, supple tannins, often round aftertaste. Most people will like to pair a Cab with food-More of a tidal wave than a quiet stream.
Tempranillo: Tempranillo is the dominant grape in red wines from Rioja and Ribera Del Duero (my personal favourite regions for wine). This wine will often be blended with Garnacha, Mazuelo and a few other grapes. Flavours of tea, brown sugar and vanilla, it can also display aromas of plums, tobacco and cassis, along with a very dark colour and substantial tannins. I always say, it tastes like the sun.
Syrah/Shiraz: Full bodied, rich and spicy with considerable tannins and the sweetness of dark berries.
Zinfandel: Some of the best Zinfandels are usually from California and the taste can anywhere range from heavy, full and spicy, to light, easy and fruity.
Merlot: Lighter in taste, medium body, soft, fruity and sometimes minty. A nice starting wine.
Pinot Noir: Subtle, very light with hints of black cherry, spice, and currant flavours, or particular aroma that resembles earth, or herbs even wilted roses. It is the classic grape of Burgundy and the favourite of Paul Giamatti in “Sideways”.
Gamay: Very light, grapy taste and low in tannins.
Grenache/Garnacha: The second most planted grape in the world, it is dark in colour, sweet and peppery. It is blended to produce Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Malbec: The grape of Argentina. Smooth, plum taste.
Sangiovese: – This is the main grape in Chianti and Brunellos. This wine is medium, to full-bodied, usually high in tannins. Spicy, with hints of raspberries, cherries and anise.
An Even Shorter List of Essential White Grapes
Sauvignon Blanc: Often has a musky, grassy taste, with hints of grapefruit and is both crisp and refreshing.
Riesling: Sweet, floral and peachy, especially Rieslings coming from Alsace, to light-bodied, with apple and honeysuckle flavours from those coming from particular regions in Germany.
Pinot Gris/Grigio: Very light, dry, crisp and acidic. Wine snobs will often describe this as a “safe” wine, “innocuous” and “uninteresting” however, there are definitely some excellent and complex Pinot Grigios out there- my personal favorite: Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio.
Chardonnay: According to Wine Spectator Magazine: “When well made, Chardonnay offers bold, ripe, rich and intense fruit flavours of apple, fig, melon, pear, peach, pineapple, lemon and grapefruit, along with spice, honey, butter, butterscotch and hazelnut flavours.” Is anyone else hungry?
Sémillion: Dry and sweet with hints of fig, tobacco and grass.
Muscat: Bold and spicy with floral notes and can range from very sweet to very dry